PAX ROMANA by Jonathan Hickman (Image Comics/collected)
If anything can be learned from time travel stories, its that meddling with the past can have unintended consequences. One of the best examples of this is the now late Ray Bradbury’s classic short story A Sound of Thunder, where a simple bug being crushed changes the entire course of human history. With all the infinite possibilities for disaster the notion of going back to the past presents, you would think such an idea would not be cavalierly pursued. The concept of writer/artist Jonathan Hickman’s time travel world-building epic Pax Romana is that even with a unified purpose, things still can change in a surprising way.
The story starts in 2053, when scientists secretly funded by the Vatican discover time travel, and with the influence of the Catholic Church in decline, decide to turn history back in their favor. Putting together a significant group of mercenaries with future technology and resources, the Vatican sends them back to Rome in 312 AD, in order to secure the Church’s influence on the world. As with many time travel tales, something goes wrong, but in this case, is that the team has decided to go beyond their mission and change history itself for the better. And with the technology & knowledge they brought with them, they will likely succeed.
The whole story of Pax Romana is about the group’s long-range plans to solidify power through the Roman empire, namely by making an alliance with Constantine to put him in charge of Rome (which historically he would have anyway, but having tanks and helicopters at your side does speed things up). The head of the group, General Chase, knows that even with his technology to shift the balance of power is this old world, change doesn’t come overnight. And even with that, there are a few speedbumps to contend with (internal conflict, and why time travel isn’t an exact science) in Chase’s long term plan. It’s a complex narrative, and one that is well played by its creator, Jonathan Hickman.
I became aware of Hickman’s work through the acclaimed and slightly controversial The Nightly News, which dealt with extremists who commit terrorist acts against the media. Pax Romana & Nightly News are both well-researched stories that use history and facts to push their ambitious tales along, and often to brutal effect. You certainly can’t fault Hickman for playing big in Pax Romana, as he does in other tales since, like his run on Marvel’s Secret Warriors, SHIELD, and Fantastic Four, and more recently, his alternate history take on 20th century history in The Manhattan Projects. Its no wonder he’s become one of comics more unique writers working today.
One massive advantage in his writer/artist works like this is his groundbreaking work with page design and footnotes, and the blending of both into a truly different narrative. In a comics industry still controlled by superheroes and very structured layouts, Pax Romana blows open the possibility of the medium using a melding of techniques of the past and the growing influence of computer generated artwork in a way no one has done before. With the design work and brilliant deployment of footnotes, the book is both a visually stunning tale and an often philosophically entrancing study of power. Just look at this unlettered two page spread from the book for example:
The only real negative you could put on the book is that its not heavily developed in terms of characters (one of the disadvantages the book had in its four issue run), but more focused on the “world-building” that the group is set on. Not that the characters in the team have their own motivations outside of changing the world (and how one affects the other), but this is a story about how a group from the future can change the past (and whether for better or worse is certainly left open to debate by the book’s climax) if they put their minds to it. But in terms of ambitious storytelling (written and visually) in comics, this is one of the best to come around in the last few years. Pax Romana might just be a comic from the future, so feel lucky we got to see it in the now.
NEXT ISSUE: A young woman gains amazing powers from a mysterious sword and with it, demigods who want her dead. Its a modern-day tale of immortal revenge & unimaginable destruction in The Luna Brothers’ THE SWORD! Until then, feel free to comment on this post and even offer up your own suggestions for future installments.